Physics instructor takes his real-world experience into the classroom to challenge students to ask questions.
Dr. Keith Willson, Penn State Beaver assistant teaching professor of physics, always planned on earning the highest degree in his field of study.
“My dad had a doctorate degree. He was an industrial chemist. Until I was 10, I thought everyone did that,” Willson said.
Although he enjoys teaching, he didn’t always plan on doing it full time. In fact, some of his physics colleagues might describe his career path from industry to academia as “curvilinear.”
After working for the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and Pittsburgh-based Bayer Polymers, Willson accepted a position as an assistant professor of physics and mathematics at Geneva College, his alma mater.
Seven years later, he began teaching courses at Penn State Beaver as an adjunct lecturer. When a longtime physics professor retired in 2014, Willson was offered a full-time faculty position. In Willson’s words, it was “a happy set of circumstances” that led him here.
His current course load includes The Science of Physics, Electricity and Magnetism, Fluids and Thermal Physics, and Wave Motion and Quantum Physics.
Even during the summer, he continues to teach Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism at Beaver.
While Willson enjoys all of his classes, he says Wave Motion and Quantum Physics is still his favorite.
“The students who take this class are well prepared and have learned how to learn and study,” he said. “Plus, the topics covered are some of the most fascinating puzzles in all of science.”
Willson describes the classes he teaches as building blocks.
“Students learn about quantum mechanics, Einstein’s relativity, and optics. Then they can start answering questions like ‘How do my eyeglasses work?’ ‘How does GPS work?’”
Since there is a lot we still don’t know about physics, it’s not always the answers that interest Willson – it’s critical thinking and theory.
Although critical thinking and theory interest Willson, one of his favorite aspects of teaching physics is the simplicity and clarity of the subject.
“There are right answers and there are wrong answers to questions, and the difference between the two is determined by looking at the universe and seeing what it actually does.”
Ph.D. in Physics, Carnegie Mellon University
Master of Science in Colloid, Polymer, and Surface Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Master of Science in Physics, Carnegie Mellon University